How to Annoy Friends and Alienate People

I received the snottiest invitation I’ve ever seen yesterday. I was asked to join CommonRoom, an “invitation-only network” for affiliates of a few swollen-head universities “and corporate clients.” I poked around, and, well, I’m sorry that I inflated their membership numbers through my curiosity. The site is a mixture of hubris and bad decisions (the two being perhaps related), and I can think of no better way to welcome CommonRoom to the Internet than to MST their press release.

For Immediate Release

Where’s your toilet? I feel an immediate release coming on.

Threat to Google and Yahoo: Harvard & Stanford Users Turn To Safer Waters

Google and Yahoo can breathe easy. A social networking site is all but irrelevant to Google and Yahoo’s core business of information organizaton. And a closed-world social networking site is even less of a threat, since Harvard and Stanford students and affiliates make up an all but infinitesmial fraction of their user base.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — August 24, 2006 — September 1, 2006 could mark the end of the internet as we know it.

Could, but apparently didn’t. It’s September 3, 2006 as I write this. Those of you who’ve been waiting on rooftops for the end of the Internet can come back downstairs and plug your laptops in again.

With the launch of CommonRoom (, a closed network for Harvard and Stanford students and alumni, some of the most educated and well-connected users on the internet will no longer have to face the unending tide of spam and malware that plague most mailboxes and web sites.

The irony of writing “closed network” and “well-connected” in the same sentence is apparently lost on the CommonRoom team. Whether or not Metcalfe’s Law is true in its full n-squared glory, closing off a network generally reduces its value. The value of networking is in the connections. A few particularly valuable contacts for Harvard alums may also be other Harvard alums, but the ones who only talk to Harvard alums are the ones who wind up plaintively drinking martinis in mid-afternoon as they wait for the phone to ring and count the days until reunion.

And as for the “unending tide of spam and malware,” well, don’t get me started on the way that the CommonRoom invitations appear to be flooding out. Perhaps I’m still gloating about my switch to a Mac, but I haven’t exactly been worrying about malware lately.

CommonRoom users will also have a new place to search for information, free from the clutter of the World Wide Web.

Some of us like the clutter of the World Wide Web. It’s only the most comprehensive and egalitarian medium ever invented.

The system will feature its own keywords, sponsored by its corporate users.

Umm, this is a feature? I’m not even sure what it means to “sponsor” a keyword. Can I not search on one unless I find a sponsor? Or are certain keywords flashed up on the screen, whether you want them or not? “MESOTHELIOMA! Brought to you by Barrett, Green, Wegner, and Prajapati, for all your asbestos lawsuit needs.”

From my exploration of the site, it appears that they feature horizontally scrolling text ads at the bottom of the screen. Major demerits for revisiting a technology that was universally reviled as irritating when it was invented. Perhaps they mean that the scolling ads will be customized based on appropriate keywords. Oh, for joy. A degree from Stanford and you’re wasting your life programming scrolling ads.

At least, I’m assuming that the folks behind this impending train wreck consist of Harvard and Stanford alums. I can’t think of anyone else who would think that this was a good moneymaking prospect. There’s a particularly smug and elitist form of Kool-Aid involved.

Companies can look forward to sending e-mail on corporate letterhead,

Because sending e-mail on corporate letterhead is otherwise impossible, given the current design of the Internet.

marketing to other CommonRoom users,

This sound suspiciously like a business model from the first dot-com bubble. We’ll make billions selling banner ads to each other!

receiving valuable focus group-type feedback from their customers,

Focus group “type?”

and managing crucial internal resources, such as calendars and files, without the need for expensive servers.

I cannot figure out how the business model is supposed to work here, unless companies have some kind of CommonRoom access that is separate and apart from the Ivy League pedigree part of the site. Perhaps there’s an outsourced-IT aspect to it—you can keep calendars and files in a hosted application—and the gimmick is that the same backend also lets you do some marketing to some allegedly influential and desireable customers. This does not strike me as a particularly valuable synergy. Perhaps CommonRoom will be better at managing corporate email and calendars than at offering consumer Inernet social applications, but if the former is the real profit center, than the latter seems like a distraction, at best.

CommonRoom is, in effect, its own internet within the internet, built from the ground up with advanced, highly integrated features that keep people and information safe and secure.

Oh, you mean like AOL?

“We wanted people to be able to trust one another for once,” said Aaron Greenspan, Think’s President and CEO.

Dude, I couldn’t tell you how many Harvard and Stanford people there are whom I don’t trust. Based on what I’ve sen of CommonRoom, Aaron Greenspan (Harvard 2004) may belong on the list.

“The original designers of the internet simply assumed that all users would be trustworthy, and skipped many of the checks and balances that we use in the real world.

Their decision not to hard-wire security to the basic layers of the Internet was, arguably, one of the great strokes of genius that have made the Internet so phenominally successful. It’s called the end-to-end principle. Go look it up. There are appropriate and useful ways to add security back in. These ways include layering secure applications on top of insecure transport layers and establishing partially closed networks that connect to the public Internet only in carefully monitored ways. CommonRoom appears to use some of these techniques. None of which make the basic design decisions of the Internet a matter of ill-advised faulty assumptions.

In response, we’ve combined Think’s security knowledge with an unprecedented network effect of features from our research products.

This is a foul perversion of the concept of network effect. Network effects involve products or services that are more valuable to a customer the more other customers there are. There are terms for the economies enjoyed by producers who reuse their experience building one product to build another, or who combine several products into a more valuable whole. “Network effect” is not such a term. For a company whose business model involves repudiating the network effect of the Internet, this use of language is galling.

There are increasing returns to scale from integration in CommonRoom that you simply can’t find anywhere else.”

Unless, perhaps, you look for them. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft come to mind.

Fortunately, we’re now at the end of the extended quotation from CommonRoom’s econ-major CEO; the misuse of economics jargon should now drop back to its normal background radiation level.

Among its many features, CommonRoom allows members to send and receive spam-free e-mail;

This assertion deserves close scrutiny. Like many other social networks, CommonRoom allows users to send each other messages internally. Many other social networks have had significant spam problems. I wish CommonRoom better luck. I doubt that their choice of user populations will do much good; perhaps the smaller overall size of their userbase will.

CommonRoom also features a hilariously broken feature to send email to a regular old user of the Internet at large. You can enter an Internet-style email address and compose a message (in a window thirteen lines tall with fifty-five characters per line). Your recipient receives, however, not your message, but an invitation to join CommonRoom. It would appear that you are meant to send messages to your non-Ivy buddies and then laugh uproariously as they attempt to sign up for a site that will not let them join without a or email address.

And, oh yes, the site proudly explains that to keep CommonRoom spam-free, you can send messages out but not have messages sent in. Thus, even if they were actually to deliver the messages you send to your Internet friends, your friends would be unable to reply.

When it comes to designing a communications medium, you can have useful or spam-free. Pick one.

buy, sell and trade books and items; plan events and courses; review companies and professors; and share information with each other in the form of blogs or electronic published works.

It’s just like the Web, except you have to wait for a central authority to sign off on each form of commerce and information-sharing. I can’t wait.

In addition, CommonRoom solves many of the privacy problems that social network users face, by allowing people to keep multiple, separate profiles for school, work and family.

I’m sorry, I’ve been laughing so hard that I’m having trouble breathing.

Only someone who doesn’t understand the nature and scale of the privacy problems faced by social network users could write that sentence. Separate profiles will do little, if anything, to prevent: * Large-scale data-mining * Government demands for user data * Corporations asking recent graduates to look at the school profiles of potential recruits * Copying of profile information into public settings * Data exposure caused by bad security practices * People revealing sensitive information about others

The system will be invitation-only, seeded by Think’s exclusive networks of Harvard students and alumni in Europe, China, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the Middle East.

I guess I was lucky to be invited, given that I’m not in any of these places. Perhaps I should be more grateful to my social networking benefactors.

The September launch will also mark Think’s first attempt to expand its reach beyond Harvard,


to include Stanford affiliates.

How thoughtful.

Prior to CommonRoom, Think depended on technology from internet giant Yahoo to maintain its contact networks.

News Flash! Yahoo threatened by plagiarized imitation of Yahoo technology!

The CommonRoom software is based upon several Think research projects, including Inbox Island

That’s, which is, as of this writing, non-functional. It was (or perhaps is) an attempt to do web-based email without SMTP. The centralization helps with anti-spam efforts. It also undermines perhaps SMTP’s greatest strength—its decentralization. Note that while InboxIsland’s site is down, you’re completely and utterly hosed. No email, sorry.

and the revolutionary web-based houseSYSTEM technology, which started the on-line face book craze at Harvard University in 2003.

The 2003-04 facebook craze at Harvard is actually a matter of some historical dispute. houseSYSTEM competed with the now better-known Facebook. Some of the details can be found in Greenspan’s self-published e-book Authoritas, about his Harvard years. Chapter 41 has a fair amount on the Facebook/houseSYSTEM fracas.

Greenspan developed houseSYSTEM there before graduating early.

One of the great roles of college is in the formation of character. Although early graduation makes great sense for students for whom college is a financial burden or for whom a life-changing opportunity is impending, my general sense is that most students are better-served by the increased maturity that another year of college brings, even if they may not feel that they are learning particularly much in their classes.

Product trailers for CommonRoom are available on-line through September 1, 2006 at Corporate customers and advertisers can find pricing information and rates on-line at:

The scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen starts at $999.00.

I’ve been a little harsh in my words, I must admit. There isn’t much inherently wrong with CommonRoom. I think it’s a me-too social networking site entering a painfully crowded space and offerling no significant innovation to differentiate itself. I expect it to fail, just as most of its competitors will. These are flush days—a second bubble, if you will—and a lot of questionable applications and services are being launched. CommonRoom is no more offensive than most. Those who understand how to work will the forces that make the Web thrive may prosper, those who swim against the current almost certainly won’t.

No, what gets my dander up is the pretention involved. Yes, the networking is part of what makes your Stanford degree so valuable. But most of that networking is implicit. It comes out that you and a colleague both went there, so you fall to talking about professors and sports. One generally doesn’t go out looking solely to hire Harvard students (except perhaps for certain Wall Street firms, but that madness is another story). The degree is a recommendation, but it’s not the first or even the primary basis on which people develop contacts.

Selling a social networking service to Ivy League college students is one thing; like college students everywhere, they have rich social lives in a fairly well-defined universe. They may well appreciate school-specific customization. But selling a general-purpose Internet-replacement social networking service to Ivy League graduates is straining the concept past its reasonable limits. Even Ivy League dating services set off the weird alarms for a lot of people. A separate Ivy League Internet would be off the nuttiness charts.

Yes, there is a camaraderie among graduates. But the Internet is one of the great unviersalizing democratizing forces of our age. To think that we should turn our back on its values in favor of school spirit, to think that school spirit trumps the Internet … that’s the kind of snobbery that inspires people to crack Harvard jokes.